The mission of the evangelical Christian church going forward is fraught with tense, intergenerational challenges but great opportunity is ahead, according to Presbyterian Church in America leader Bryan Chapell.
In a meeting of the presbytery clerks that was held via Zoom earlier in December, leaders of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) spoke about how God intends to unite the generations amid different experiences and perspectives on how ministry is done.
Citing the words of Francis Schaffer, Chapell, the clerk pro tempore of the PCA, noted that the loss of truth has fundamentally changed the culture, noting that Truth with a capital T, has moved from truth being transcendent to truth with a lowercase t, which may be a relativist "what's true for me."
"Any church that says there is a transcendent truth has become anathema in culture," he said, because such a claim extends to many other realms like marriage, morality, and other values.
Churches have also dealt with significant loss of their youth in recent years, which has become apparent when children leave the home and Christian parents hope to see them live the faith they were raised in during their childhood years but they do not.
The relevant statistical data shows that two-thirds of today's evangelical youth will not continue to attend church after leaving home, he explained. Only about one-third of those two-thirds who have left will eventually return to church, usually when they start having families and children of their own. As Baby Boomers who still attend church in large numbers begin aging out, the statistics portend a "coming cliff."
What has surprised many evangelicals has not been the loss of the younger generation but the loss of the mature, those who have served as elders, Sunday school teachers, and other leaders within congregations are leaving in greater numbers.
"The people you thought would be the foundation of the church are, in fact, departing," he said.
The loss of denominational ancestry has contributed to this phenomenon in the transient culture which is modern America. The vast majority of Bible-believing Christians in PCA churches were not raised in Bible-believing PCA churches, he said.
"Mobility has taken people away from the churches of their childhood," he said. "And so if you are Bible-committed, the primary decision you are making about churches is 1) 'Do they teach the Bible?' and 2) Do they have a worship style that I like?"
Another reason PCA churches lose mature Christians is the lack of family consistency, he said. Though the actual percentage of Christian marriages that break up is debated — whether it mirrors the approximately 50% figure in the wider secular culture or is closer to 38%, which is what groups like Focus on the Family have maintained — there is little incentive for people to stay in their churches when their marriages fail. Most marriages break up within the first five years or when couples become empty nesters, he said.
The mature also leave churches when the activities of their children eclipse regular church attendance.
Many of the two-thirds of youth who leave church upon leaving the home were already not attending church in their upper teen years because of sports, SAT exam preparation, and jobs, all of which are now happening on Sunday mornings, he explained.
"We do not identify them as not attending church because they are still living with their parents, but the reality is that they've already stepped out," Chapell said.
Affluence has afforded many parents the privilege of traveling more, perhaps having a second home and if one is retired that frees up time to be away from church if they choose, he said, noting that many who consider themselves to be "regular" church attenders and members attend services three out of eight Sundays.
The rise of the "nones" — those who no longer identify with any particular religious affiliation — has happened as people emerge from a culture of nominal Christianity. Many nones say they are spiritual but not religious yet still believe in God. This group has grown 1% per year since the year 2000.
Given such rapid demographic changes, the experiences of older and younger pastors are widely disparate and thus present generational challenges when it comes to approaching ministry.
For those ministers over 50, the thinking was Christian majoritarian accompanied by the view that it was their spiritual obligation to take charge of the culture and stop the erosion of morality and ethics by reestablishing Judeo-Christian values through various political and economic means. This meant attempting to stop social ills and liberal causes like abortion, pornography, illegal drugs, gambling, radical environmentalism, and LGBT goals. Such spiritual motivation was bolstered by a prevailing anti-communist ethos that was especially strong in American political culture in past decades.
This way of thinking is increasingly less prevalent if not the opposite among those under 40, whose experiential grid differs vastly from how the older generation was raised, the PCA leader elaborated. The faithful among the younger generation see as their duty to make the Gospel message credible in a largely unbelieving society, which alters how they speak about issues, emphasizing Gospel-based, solutions-oriented approaches to problems instead of moral and political opposition.
The intergenerational chasm proves difficult to navigate, he explained, noting how the older generation accuses the younger generation of moral compromise and capitulating to culture. And the younger generation accuses the older of lacking compassion and hypocrisy.
Yet Chapell expressed optimism in that great opportunity for mission exists amid a culture that is increasingly hostile to Christian faith.
"If in fact you are a young person in the church today ... we probably have the best generation of evangelists in our churches than in any time of our history, because if you're willing to identify with Jesus Christ and the Scriptures in this culture, you are swimming upstream, you have taken a stand, and you actually want to make credible your Gospel to your family and to your friends and to your neighbors."
Being an intergenerational church is "amazingly powerful" for the purposes of God, Chapell said.
While most people come to faith in Christ before age 15, "that also means that the most powerful mechanism for spreading the Gospel is the covenant family. It always has been, it always will be."
"And if we are raising families with an understanding of their dynamics, we will change people, we will change the world. It's what God has called us to do. Outreach in fact occurs when we are able to be generation upon generation, faithful to the Scriptures, dealing with different contexts as we do it," he concluded.